The Best Things to Do in Israel
One would be hard pressed to find a country more steeped in history, culture, and religious tradition than Israel. Once there, you’ll find a vibrant mix of modernity and antiquity, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern philosophies and practices, and dramatic landscapes. A major focal point for three of the world’s major religions, the spiritual weight and sanctity of the city is almost palpable in the winding streets of Jerusalem.
Dead Sea, Jordan
The Dead Sea, which borders Israel and Jordan, is the lowest point on earth, sitting 1,410 feet below sea level, and continuing to drop as both countries divert water from the River Jordan. As one of the world’s most saline bodies of water (almost 10 times saltier than the ocean), the Dead Sea cannot sustain life, hence its name. Yet the sea’s therapeutic properties attract thousands of visitors annually. The high saline content enables bathers to sit upright in the water and read a book or newspaper. Visitors also enjoy covering their bodies in mineral-rich mud, which is thought to cleanse and purify the skin. Either stay at one of the region’s luxurious hotels and get your spa treatments there, or hit one of the public beaches on a day trip and slather the mud on yourself.
כביש 90, Israel
A beautiful 15,000-acre park in Israel’s Negev Desert, north of Eilat, Timna Park offers visitors spectacular views of the arid desert landscape and ancient geological formations. One highlight is the copper mine at Mount Timna, which scientists and historians consider to be the world’s very first. At least 6,000 years ago, the area was mined by ancient Egyptians by order of their pharaoh, as well as by Israelites under the rule of King Solomon. Tours of the park, including highly recommended bike tours, are available daily, as is zip-lining, pedal-boating on the artifical lake, and the Timna Safari Shuttle, which leaves from Eilat.
Yefe Nof St 61, Haifa, Israel
The Bahá'í Gardens—geometric, meticulously manicured,and covering the northern slope of Mount Carmel—are Haifa’s most recognizable landmark and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Rising up the summit of Mount Carmel are 19 curved terraces, filled with fountains, emerald lawns, bright flowers, and trimmed hedges. In the center of the gardens sits the domed Shrine of the Báb. Pilgrims come from all over the world to pay homage to the first leaders of the faith. Touring the site requires modest clothing, and if a cruise ship is in port, expect a crowd. (The gardens are closed on Baha’i holy days and Yom Kippur. In rainy weather, they may be closed temporarily as a safety measure because the pavements are slippery when wet.)
Pinkhas Eilon St 8, Holon, 5845400, Israel
Opened in 2010, the Design Museum Holon is the first museum in Israel dedicated to design. The iconic building, which quickly became a city landmark, was designed by acclaimed architect Ron Arad. By mounting exhibits on historical and contemporary design from Israel and around the world, the museum aims to inspire and challenge the design community, as well as the general public’s perception of design and the way it impacts their lives. For professionals in creative industries, students, and design enthusiasts, the museum is a vital and dynamic resource. The building includes galleries for temporary exhibitions, an archive, the Design Lab, and Collection Windows.
Old City, Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel
Jaffa, the oldest seaport in the world, is home to a vibrant multiethnic community of Muslims, Christians, and Jews next to Tel Aviv. Archaeology and ancient documents show that Jaffa has been in existence as a port city for more than 4,000 years and is where Jonah (of Jonah and the whale) set off from. Until recently, the port had become derelict, but after major renovations, it now teems with life and culture, from seafood restaurants and organic-coffee cafés to bookstores and theaters. The Old Port (known as Namal Yafo) is also a sort of artist colony, with numerous art galleries and studios. The views are breathtaking, especially at sunset.
Olei Zion St, Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel
The ever-colorful Jaffa Flea Market, in operation for more than 100 years, inhabits a portside neighborhood of alleyways, covered walkways, and outdoor verandas. Wander the endless market streets to find restored antiques and handicrafts, Judaica and Persian tiles, as well as designer boutiques and art galleries. Even if you don’t buy a thing, it is the perfect spot to sample local fare. Once the sun sets, and the vendors head home, a food scene springs to life—a wonderland of twinkling lights with dozens of trendy restaurants, bars, and chic cafés. (The flea market is called Shuk Hapishpishim in Hebrew.)
Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem ensures that the magnitude of the Holocaust’s injustices are never forgotten. Visiting the museum is an educational, as well as emotional, experience and should not be rushed. The museum is dedicated to researching the phenomenon of the Holocaust and genocide in general, with the hope of avoiding it in the future. Exhibitions present the history that led up to the Holocaust, as well as the related events during and after World War II, featuring personal stories, historical artifacts, films, and photographs. It also highlights the bravery of underground movements, uprisings, and the non-Jews (the Righteous Among the Nations) who saved Jewish neighbors, children, and families from certain death. Outdoor gardens contain several monuments, including a haunting children’s memorial and commemorative sculptures. Guided audio tours are recommended.
This church in Jerusalem’s Old City is considered one of the world’s holiest Christian sites. It is believed that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified on this site, and it is the location of Jesus’ tomb, where he is said to have been buried and resurrected. At the church’s entrance, the Stone of Anointing marks the spot where Jesus’ body was prepared for burial. The three primary custodians of the church, appointed when Crusaders controlled Jerusalem, are the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, and Roman Catholic churches. An agreement regulates the times and places of worship for each church.
The Western Wall (also called the Kotel) is a remnant of the ancient wall that surrounded the Jewish Temple’s courtyard in the Old City of Jerusalem. It is one of the most sacred sites in Judaism, outside the Temple Mount itself. The plaza in front of the wall is divided into separate sections for women and men. Some worshipers wedge their prayers, written on small scraps of paper, into crevices between the stones in the wall, while others stand and pray, sometimes for hours. Archeologists have uncovered layers of the wall underground through years of excavation, and via a guided tour, visitors can walk through areas of this original, unrestored site that dates back to the 1st century C.E.
Sea of Galilee
The Sea of Galilee has had a variety of names since biblical times, but in modern Israel, it’s called Lake Kinneret. Regardless of its name, the Kinneret is the focal point of Galilee. This beautiful freshwater lake is lined with ideal places to relax: beaches, camping grounds, cycling trails, and walking tracks, as well as an assortment of historic, archaeological, and religious attractions. Many of the places around the lake, such as Tabgha and Capernaum, are holy sites for Christians, the locations where Jesus is believed to have performed miracles. The newest attraction at the Kinneret is Aqua Kef, an inflatable floating water park, with trampolines, slides, and climbing walls.
On a rocky plateau overlooking the Dead Sea lies the 2,000-year-old cliff-top fortress of Masada. Next to Jerusalem, it is the most popular destination for tourists visiting Israel. In addition to its sheer natural beauty, Masada is also the setting of one of the most powerful and tragic stories in Jewish history. During the First Roman-Jewish War in 73 or 74 C.E., 960 Jewish zealots—men, women, and children—committed suicide on top of the mountain rather than submit to capture by the Romans. Among the ruins are the Northern Palace, an ancient synagogue, and a Roman-style bathhouse with mosaic floors. The ascent to Masada can be done by cable car or by walking up the Snake Path, a moderate climb which should take around an hour.
Formed by water erosion 200 million years ago—and not by a meteor impact, as is often presumed—the Makhtesh Ramon is a geologic jewel amid the majestic landscape of Israel’s Negev Desert. The earth’s largest natural crater (makhtesh), the site offers a range of activities from horseback riding and jeep tours to mountain-bike trails and family excursions. At the visitor center in the city of Mizpe Ramon, guests can learn about the area’s unique flora and fauna, such as ibex; participate in special interactive exhibitions; and take in a panoramic view of the expansive crater, which measures 25 miles long and 1,600 feet deep, from the observation deck.
The multifaceted mountaintop town of Safed, located almost 3,000 feet above sea level in Upper Galilee, boasts magnificent views of the Golan Heights, Sea of Galilee, and Lebanon. The city first became prominent when the Crusaders built a fortress on the site. Jews first arrived in considerable numbers after expulsion from Spain in 1492, and Safed became a spiritual center when Kabbalah flourished under rabbis Yitzhak Luria and Joseph Caro. Safed has a thriving artists’ quarter, with studios and galleries filling the narrow alleys, and it hosts an annual klezmer festival. It also maintains a strong religious presence as one of Israel’s four holiest cities.
Tel Aviv is known for its picturesque stretches of soft sand beaches filled with lively tanned locals and tourists swimming, snorkeling, and playing matkot (the Israeli version of the raquet sport paddle ball). But with a handful of different spots, including the ports of Jaffa and Tel Aviv, it can be difficult to decide where to put down a towel. A tried-and-true local favorite is Gordon Beach, with its volleyball nets set up on the sand, selection of restaurants and bars lining the boardwalk, and the adjacent saltwater Gordon Pool. A handful of water activities, such as kitesurfing and stand-up paddleboarding, are also available at neaby beaches. Visitors often stay after hours to watch the unrivaled sunset.
64 Max Nordau Street
Located in southern Galilee in the Jordan Valley, Beit She’an National Park was created to protect and preserve the site of one of Israel‘s oldest cities. One can easily spend a few hours exploring the vast and fascinating park. Some of the country’s most spectacular artifacts dating back to the Bronze Age are on exhibit, as well as an impressive 7,000-seat Roman amphitheater, public baths, workshops, a temple, and the colonnaded Palladius street. Don’t miss She’an Nights, an evening sound-and-light show in which images of Roman buildings and people are projected onto the ruins along the central street, briefly bringing the city back to life.
Israel National Trail
Caesarea, the city and harbor that Herod built, is now preserved as a national park. A walk along its pathways allows visitors to experience the city’s role as part of ancient Rome and its days during the Crusades in the Byzantine era. Check out a concert at the partially restored amphitheater, or dive in Caesarea’s sunken harbor and underwater archaelogical park. Ancient ruins, including the remains of Herod’s palace, sit along the coastline. A state-of-the-art visitor center offers a historical perspective, complete with famous figures presented as hologram tour guides: King Herod, Rabbi Akiva, the Apostle Paul, and Hannah Senesh. Right outside the park’s boundaries, find a modern city with restaurants, cafés, and some eclectic galleries selling wine, cheese, olive oil, and jewelry—plus a lovely stretch of Mediterranean beach.